Why we should be publishing more children’s books in translation

Lisa Davis is the Book Purchasing Manager at BookTrust, the UK’s largest reading charity that gifts books to over two million children, and works on the In Other Words translation initiative.

My first few years in children’s publishing were spent in rights and production departments. It was wonderful watching our books get translated into dozens of languages, knowing they were being read all over the world. While each publishing house I worked in had different types of books and a different way of working, one thing remained the same: we always sold to other countries, but we never bought from them.

Estimates are that no more than 3% of books published in the UK have been translated from another language, although that figure is regularly questioned. But let’s still compare that to France where over 17% of their published titles were translated. In Poland it’s closer to 30%, and in Indonesia it’s over 40%. Unsurprisingly, the majority of translations in all three countries come from English.*

In the UK, translation is often reserved for literary fiction and not children’s books, and I can’t help wondering what we’re missing out on. So here are my top three reasons why we should be publishing more children’s books in translation.

1) Improving relationships with international publishers

Each time a UK Publisher sells to an international publisher, each party should be mutually benefiting from the transaction. But when you take a step back, these relationships can look one-sided. How often have editorial departments taken the time to consider titles from the international publishers buying their books? And why do rights departments bemoan acquiring titles where they don’t have world rights, even if the book comes from one of their valued clients? Editorial and rights teams could be working together to develop relationships and partnerships with international publishers.

2) Supporting cultural diversity

Books can take you anywhere and let you experience someone else’s life. But without books in translation, we’re limiting our experiences and missing out on representing people in our society. Consider the cultural diversity of the UK: our two largest non-UK born groups come from Poland and India, yet most of our translated books come from western Europe. We have to accept that even with the best intentions and research, a book set in Poland written by a British author is unlikely to capture Polish culture as well as a book written by an actual Pole.

3) Building bridges

Now more than ever children need an international perspective. We live in a connected world and books in translation allow children to reach beyond their own language and culture, share an experience, and better understand each other. Consider the significance of works like Anne Frank’s Diary, without which many children wouldn’t be able to read a first-hand account of life in Nazi Germany.

Think of what we’d be missing if we hadn’t translated Pippi Longstocking or the Moomins – now such an integral part of our classic children’s books that most people don’t even realise they’re translated.

So how do we get more books into English?

For the past year, I’ve had the pleasure of working on the In Other Words project at BookTrust. Our work has, I hope, begun to address some of the key barriers to translation by providing translated extracts for editors to consider, and a £1,500 marketing bursary for each acquired title.

From our first year, we shortlisted eight titles and three titles have already been purchased by UK publishers. While I don’t expect this to open up the floodgates to publishing translated children’s books, I hope it will at least increase the tiny amount that’s currently in the market, build relationships between publishers and widen the cultural offering of children’s books.

Submissions for our second year are open now for non-English language publishers. You can find out more here: www.booktrust.org.uk/in-other-words

For further reading, there’s a great article on Outside In World about a decade of children’s books in translation: http://www.outsideinworld.org.uk/childrens-books.asp?page=ArticlesNewsandLinks

*Figures taken from reports on the Frankfurt Bookfair website: https://www.buchmesse.de/en/international/book_markets/

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